A CONVERSATION WITH JEE LEONG KOH
BY JENNIFER WONG
Jee Leong Koh is a Singapore poet and essayist living in New York City. He is the author of Steep Tea (Carcanet), named a Best Book of 2015 by UK’s Financial Times and a Finalist by Lambda Literary in 2016. He has published three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. His work has been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, and Latvian. Educated at Oxford University and Sarah Lawrence College, Jee teaches English at a private school in Manhattan. He is the organizer of SINGAPORE UNBOUND, which runs the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in NYC, the Second Saturdays Reading Series, and the arts blog Singapore Poetry.
How do you see your identity as a writer and, in particular, as a Chinese writer? Do you see yourself as a writer of Chinese ethnicity? Should ethnicity be remembered or ignored when readers appreciate your work?
JLK: Growing up in Singapore, I was teased by Chinese schoolmates for being a banana, yellow on the outside, white on the inside. They were mocking my love for the English language and my apathy towards Mandarin Chinese. At home my family spoke a mixture of English and Cantonese. Mandarin was for me a school language. The schoolyard teasing turned me off from learning it properly. Now, as if in belated protest against those ancient taunts, I’d like to think of myself as a Chinese writer who writes in English, if only to expand the notion of what a Chinese writer is.
My second book, and first full-length collection, Equal to the Earth (Bench Press, 2009) begins with a sequence of persona poems called “Hungry Ghosts.” Taken from Chinese history, the personae include Sima Qian, a Confucian Scholar-Official, an Emperor’s male favourite, and a Taoist Magician. At that time, having just come out as a gay man in New York City, I felt it right to begin the book with the personal recovery of queer figures in Chinese history, to give voice to these Chinese characters. Sometimes my ethnicity enters my poetry in less direct ways. My poems about Singapore are written from the viewpoint of a member of the majority race, with all its advantages and disadvantages.
Being ethnic Chinese is certainly a part of my personal and poetic identity, but it is not statically so. I feel more Chinese in New York City than in Singapore, mainly because in New York I am in the ethnic minority. Once, during very early days in New York, I was feeling horribly isolated at a poetry reading. I wandered away from the event and found myself in Chinatown. I could read the shop signs and billboards, and I immediately felt less lonely. I feel less Chinese in China than in Singapore because as a Southeast Asian I am very different from the Chinese Chinese. During a visit to China, I was asked if I was Chinese, because my facial features and complexion did not look Chinese. I’ve been asked this question in other places too. Filipinos have asked me if I am Filipino, Mexicans if I am Mexican. The Chinese question came from the grandmother of my host family. When I said, yes, but from Singapore, granny said something along the lines of once a Chinese, always a Chinese. A visceral resistance rose in me. I knew she was being nice, but I felt she was laying claim on me without knowing me. Singapore is not an outpost of the Chinese empire.
What is your view about China?
JLK: One of my deepest impressions, from two short visits of three weeks each, is how ethnically diverse the country is. Yunnan Province is made up of many ethnic groups, which at one time or another ruled themselves in more or less autonomous tribes, even states. In the city of Dali, we stayed at a small Bai hotel, whose owner told us wonderful Bai legends about the local pagoda. To travel from Yunnan to Beijing is to re-trace the route of Han imperialism. To be Chinese means very different things to different people nominally citizens of the People’s Republic of China. My tour guide in Lijiang, also in Yunnan, complained bitterly about young Han Chinese buying up homes and driving up prices in the city. They were taking over local jobs, such as tour guiding, although they had little knowledge of local history. Singaporeans are taught to think of China as a huge market, and Americans to think of China as an economic rival. These conceptions flatten the differences among the Chinese peoples, among other effects. We look to literature, I think, to highlight what is individual.
Where is/are your homeland(s)? Do you see any relationship between writing and homeland?
JLK: The idea of a homeland is different from that of a home, because the former necessarily involves territory. When I think of land, I don’t wish to possess it, but I do wish to explore it. Whenever I visit a new city, I love to walk all around it. I don’t feel I know a place until I have seen it on foot. Poetry has that quality of slow and patient exploration, holding a map in hand, perhaps, but always open to surprise. I have an affinity to rivers, since they speak of continuity and change simultaneously. On both visits to China, I was a school-trip chaperone, and so was not free to move at will. On my next trip, I’d like very much to sail down the two great rivers of China and see all the different spots associated with its literary history. Su Dongpo’s Red Cliff, for instance.
Have you ever felt at home with where you are and who you are, and if you do what gives rise to that condition or state of mind? How does the idea of being at home or not at home, or the notion of ‘place’, change your writing?
JLK: Home is where I can be most myself. New York City is home in that sense because it’s where I came out as a gay man and live as one most freely. Singapore is home because there I don’t have to explain constantly where I am from. The place where I can be most myself, however, is not a country nor a city, but a room where I can write. This was my first boyfriend’s living room in Brooklyn Heights, my bedroom in the Queens apartment that I shared with two others, my second boyfriend’s dining table in Hell’s Kitchen, and my study in the Upper West Side apartment where I now live. Home is a room where I can shut out the world and be alone with my own thoughts. More metaphorically, it is in poetry that I feel most at home. When I am writing, I feel I am most myself, making myself up as I go along.
When you write, who do you write for?
JLK: First and foremost, I write for myself. I write because writing gives me so much pleasure and a strong sense of purpose. Because I write in English, I write for an Anglophone audience, whether it is in the USA or the Bahamas, the UK or India, Singapore or Australia. Before I published my first book, I was already participating actively in an online poetry workshop called Poetry Free-for-all. Members came from all over the English-speaking world, and so right from the start I was conscious of writing not just for one country or territory. When my fourth book The Pillow Book (Math Paper Press, 2012) was translated into Japanese and published in Japan (Awai Books, 2013), I became conscious that my poetry could cross language boundaries, and began thinking of writing for more than English speakers. I do have, however, a specific audience in mind for my next book. I’m working on a book of haiku, and I think of it as my American book. Having lived in the country for more than 12 years, I want to compose an ode to it. Prose I think of as more local than poetry. I have a collection of essays, personal and literary, with a publisher right now, and they are written with a Singaporean audience in mind.
How do you relate to the experience of culturally hybridity, or crossing cultural borders?
JLK: All my histories—racial, national, familial, and personal—are hybrids, constituted by the movement of peoples and ideas. I am certainly not unique in this matter. I don’t understand the need to be only one thing when I can be so many things. Because of my British education, I started by writing sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas, but I have since written in other poetic forms, such as ghazals, Chinese-like couplets, zuihitsu, and haiku. I don’t see this change as a disavowal of the West in favour of the East. Rather, I see it as a broadening of my understanding of poetry across cultures. My latest book Steep Tea has a villanelle in it, which responds to a villanelle by the Iranian British poet Mimi Khalvati. “Steep Tea” is also the title of an autumn kasen renga in the collection, written together with the American poet Rachael Briggs. Tea is a potent brew, common to many cultures, due to trade, empire, and adoption. I’d like my poetry to be sipped and relished like a good cup of tea.
Do you ever feel the inadequacy of expressing yourself in the English language, especially when you fuse your work with myths, symbols and imagery of another ‘place’, or in articulating your otherness?
JLK: The inadequacy that I feel is the same as any other writer’s: the enormous challenge of expressing one mind to another. I don’t think it’s all that hard to explain my culture to another person. What’s hard is to give the other person my individual sense of it. Culture must have some commonly agreed-upon meaning to be considered culture, but one’s sense of the culture is just that, one’s own irreducibly private sense of it. It’s not hard to explain, for instance, what the factory-made terracotta soldier in my poem “Hong Kong” stands for. It’s much harder to convey what the souvenir means for an evolving love-relationship, which is the true subject of the poem.
An idea may be expressed more succinctly or forcefully or lyrically in one language than another, but that it can be communicated through translation is an article of faith with me. Not without some loss and distortion, perhaps, but communicable, nevertheless. Translation is a very suggestive trope. When I write, I am “translating” fuzzy ideas and inarticulate feelings into words. There will be losses in the process of “carrying over” (the meaning of “translation), but if the translation is good, much can be saved.
How much do Chinese language, philosophy and/or culture matter to you?
JLK: Growing up, I loved martial arts movies (wuxia pian), especially those that involved divine abilities, magical swords, and foxy demons. I imbibed what I knew of Chinese literature and history, for instance, Journey to the West, through TV adaptations and big-screen movies. I was also into Cantonese opera (wayang), which was performed outdoors during the Hungry Ghosts Month. The makeshift stage, the gorgeous costumes (long feathers springing from hats), the piercing singing, the acrobatics, the atmosphere smoky with burning incense, the ice-cream cart, the vendor selling toy wooden swords. I learned the story of the Butterfly Lovers from this roadside theatre. My neighbours and I would put on our own little opera show at home. It was my first and only experience of cross-dressing.
How is your writing shaped by your reading of Chinese or Western authors? How do you see the difference between your work and the mainstream Western poets?
JLK: My earliest literary influences came from the West. In school, I loved the poetry of John Keats, W. B. Yeats, Philip Larkin, and T. S. Eliot. They all had the knack of saying memorable things in memorable ways. W. H. Auden and Thom Gunn, two gay poets who moved from England to the USA, are a constant source of inspiration. Their work is deeply humanistic. Auden’s verse has a highly musical intelligence. Gunn addresses contemporary realities, such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with a modest and humane touch. Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game exerts a strong influence on my poetics. I like his idea of poetry as the common language for all branches of human knowledge. The annual festival in the novel celebrates poetry as both a game and a prayer. Friedrich Nietzsche is another important intellectual influence, read with astonishment and recognition on a Chelsea pier.
After I moved to the USA, I started reading Chinese philosophy, history, and fiction with Ellen Neskar at Sarah Lawrence College. I am immensely drawn to Zhuangzhi, whose philosophy and writing seem very poetical to me, in other words, creative. His story about Cook Ding, who cuts up skilfully the Duke of Zhou’s ox without blunting his blade, is a lesson I hold close to my heart. I always remember his admonition that words are like nets: once they have caught the meaning, they should be let go. The meaning is the catch. Another author important to me is Li Yu, the Ming-Qing playwright and short-story writer. His stories are highly original and wittily subversive. He set himself up as his own publisher and promoter. His entrepreneurial spirit was an inspiration when I started my own press.
The difference between Chinese and Western authors that matters most to me springs from their very different religious outlook. Western authors draw sustenance from or rebel against the Judeo-Christian tradition. I was an Evangelical Christian for most of my teens and twenties, but left the religion when I hit thirty. As such, I was steeped in the story of sin and salvation, and I still draw from it for my writing. But I have always had another tradition open to me: Taoism. Zhuangzhi reconnected me to Chinese culture and thought. Instead of searching for redemption, I’m looking for the Way. This has obvious resonance for me as a migrant poet. I am attracted to the haiku poets because they drew from Zen Buddhism, which in turn drew from Taoism.
Are you influenced by Mainland Chinese culture and literature, either in terms of classical or contemporary literature? And how about diaspora writings?
JLK: I’ve read Ha Jin, Mo Yan, and Taiwanese Chen Ruoxi. I admire their work, but they read like foreign authors to me, as distant as the Russians or the South Africans. Closer to me, because he is from Hong King, a city very like Singapore, is the poet Nicholas Wong. From the viewpoint of China, writings by Chinese Singaporeans are diasporic writings, and therefore secondary. From the viewpoint of Singapore, we are nobody’s peripheral but our own center. A very small one, perhaps, but it’s vital for Singapore literature to look to itself for inspiration, disagreements, and self-understandings. A work like Sonny Liew’s acclaimed graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye could not have been made anywhere else but in Singapore. Its achievement challenges all of us writers to up our game.
The best living Singaporean poet, in my opinion, is Cyril Wong. He has a natural lyrical gift. His first book Squatting Quietly excited me because it was so frank about sexual and family matters. His book-length Zen poem Satori Blues is a great artistic, and spiritual, achievement. Goh Poh Seng was a pioneering Singapore writer. He is reckoned to have written the first Singaporean novel. I love his poetry for its openness to questions and curiosity about others. It has a confidence about it, which is very attractive. I feel I know the person through the poetry. This feeling is very important to me as a reader and a writer.
Do you think there is any Chinese-ness among contemporary Chinese poets, including yourself? What do you think it entails?
JLK: I wouldn’t like any Chinese-ness to be pinned down to one thing. I like to think of Chinese-ness as an expandable and expendable trait. It is something to think with, as I have done in this interview.
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Jennifer Wong is a Hong Kong-born poet now based in London. She has an English degree from Oxford University and an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. She is now completing a practice-based PhD on contemporary Chinese diaspora poetry at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. In 2014, she received the Young Artist (Literary Arts) Award from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Her interviews have appeared in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Litro UK, and Wasafiri.
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